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The Philadelphia Flyers and the Boston Bruins play during the first period of the NHL's Winter Classic hockey game at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts January 1, 2010. REUTERS/Adam Hunger (ADAM HUNGER)
The Philadelphia Flyers and the Boston Bruins play during the first period of the NHL's Winter Classic hockey game at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts January 1, 2010. REUTERS/Adam Hunger (ADAM HUNGER)


NHL's Winter Classic becoming a fan favourite Add to ...

There are things missing from this picture.

Like bulrushes to stickhandle through, a bonfire, boots for goalposts, a drinking hole and a puck-chasing dog.

But other than that, it's outside skating on natural, real ice - even if that outdoor rink looks a little un-real in the middle of a National Football League stadium.

A cold, light rain was falling in Pittsburgh on Thursday afternoon - hopefully not a precursor to the torrent predicted for Saturday's Winter Classic between Sidney Crosby's Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin's Washington Capitals - but the elements, surely, are as much a reality of outdoor hockey as frozen toes.

Even so, there is high anxiety. Predictions are of 12 degrees and a 70-per-cent chance of rain, perhaps even thunder and lightning The 1 p.m. start could involve a series of rain delays - this is hockey, not baseball - and could be pushed back as far as 8 p.m. The game could, disastrously, even be nudged back as far as Sunday, sending an NHL game up against the NFL Sunday afternoon schedule which, in America, would be roughly the equivalent of Don Messer opening for Bruce Springsteen.

A simple regular-season game that counts a mere two points in the standings has come, bizarrely, to count for more than anything else in the NHL's own standings among U.S. sporting events of notice, from the Super Bowl to the World Series. The league promotes the game heavily, and it has elevated the marketing effort for this edition by working with cable channel HBO on a reality series that is spiked by the rivalry between two superstars, Crosby and Ovechkin.

The three prior Winter Classics have averaged about four million viewers on NBC, and the league is betting that Saturday draws a bigger audience than the 2009 Detroit Red Wings-Chicago Blackhawks affair, which attracted 4.4 million, most for a regular-season game since 1975. But the consequence of delaying the game would be to flirt with a ratings collapse, first on Saturday night by going head-to-head against ESPN's broadcast of the Fiesta Bowl featuring Oklahoma and Connecticut. By moving to noon on Sunday, the Classic would compete with NFL pregame shows on three networks and then at 1 p.m., the game between the hometown Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. And there are playoff implications - if the Steelers win their final regular-season match, they receive a first-round bye next week.

The fourth Winter Classic clearly has its genesis in Edmonton's 2003 Heritage Classic, when 57,167 fans - most filled with their anti-freeze of choice - braved -30 wind chill to watch the old Oilers take on the old Montreal Canadiens, and then the current Oilers play the current Canadiens in a real game that actually counted in the standings. Since then, the Winter Classic has been held in Buffalo, Chicago and Boston and has arrived here in Pittsburgh. The selection of U.S. markets is no accident, as the league has pulled out every stop in its effort not only to keep hockey relevant in America but to raise its profile.

"This game has the potential to be the biggest of them all," John Collins, COO of the league, said Thursday.

That is, of course, if it's not washed out.

The fear for the NHL is not the ice, even if it were to turn to slush, but the mist, the fog, the sheer volume of water if the worst predictions come true. Still, it may happen fine, and all is in good shape heading into the weekend. The ice, made with the league's million-dollar refrigeration system, is hard and has that slightly hollow sound that is heard only outside, never in an enclosed rink. The sunlight, which was out earlier in the morning, glints on one side of the rink but is shaded on the other. The breath of those tuqued skaters invited to try out the temporary NHL rink at Heinz football field has substance, even if not everything else does.

If, with luck, the game comes off Saturday, and if the growing Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry plays up to billing, then Mr. Collins's prediction will likely come true. It will be a huge success in both financial and promotional terms. It has been impossible this past month - from the HBO series to magazine covers and television commercials - to avoid the faces of the game's two most recognizable stars of the moment: Pittsburgh's Crosby and Washington's Ovechkin.

And yet, it is being sold, rather successfully, as a return to hockey's roots. Not today. Not tomorrow. But yesterday.

As NHL executive vice-president of marketing Brian Jennings put it Wednesday, this is all about getting back to "that time of simplicity."

This again is the legacy of the Edmonton outdoor game seven years ago. Fans were enthralled with the image of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier helping to shovel off the ice surface, almost as if they were two neighbourhood kids who had come to the local pond to dream about one day playing for the Stanley Cup - not a couple of retired multimillionaires who, between them, had actually hoisted the Cup a total of 10 times.

"It was like time had stood still," Messier said at the time.

Gretzky, however, had wondered aloud "if you can ever duplicate it." He had loved the outdoor experience but, to him, this first outdoor NHL experience was unique.

"It's kind of like the '72 series," he said at the time. "You can never go back and try and do it again."

But now they have gone back a fifth time - six, once a second Heritage Classic is staged in Calgary on Feb. 20 when the Flames will play the Canadiens. And it has not only been duplicated, it has been expanded to the point where the NHL owns its own outdoor "rink" and refrigeration truck and plans to make at least the Winter Classic an annual event for as long as fans and sponsors care to embrace it.

The reason is simple: sentimentalism. It is at the very core of sport - Lou Gehrig's farewell speech to the fans, Bobby Baun's broken-leg playoff goal, Jack Nicklaus's middle-age Masters … and it is a powerful emotion that taps into memory and pocketbook with equal ease. When Mario Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins owner who fought cancer and managed a comeback after he had been named to the Hockey Hall of Fame takes to the ice in the old-timers' game, it will be to tears as well as cheers.

It matters not that many, perhaps most, of the young men who will take to the ice in the actual Winter Classic will never have played outdoors. There is a collective memory out there that is nursed by the real experiences of their parents, of older fans, and is burnished still through such images as that Tim Hortons commercial featuring Sidney Crosby climbing off the team bus to join some kids in a little outdoor shinny.

For reasons that defy rationalization, once he steps on that ice surface, he no longer is a professional who makes $8.7-million a year for playing a child's game. In an outdoor rink there are no corporate boxes, no tickets to buy - and no rinkboard advertising because, of course, there are no boards.

While there may, in truth, be next to no fans today who know that the secret for frozen toes is to rub them with snow - what science, pray, is that? - most fans and players accept that, no matter how contrived it might be, there is still a romance to the game if it is played as it was invented: outdoors, on real ice.

"Good, warm, fuzzy memories," former Oiler Paul Coffey called it back in 2003.

Even for those, it turns out, who couldn't possibly have such memories.

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